"Music Is Up There and You Can't Touch It": Macy Gray Talks About Her New Album 'Stripped'
The soul singer's latest was made with just one microphone and four jazz musicians covering mostly her older hits. Simplicity has its merits.
You know Macy Gray. About 15 years ago she was just about everywhere: her cool and raspy voice was the antidote to years of mega-divas like Whitney and Mariah who hit the highest and longest notes in an often too-sanitized way, and her sense of bohemian fashion had a similar loose grace. She did some acting (for example in Training Day with Denzel Washington). She made records, and you knew her immediately.
Her new record is both a stark contrast to her initial burst of pop stardom and a perfect reflection of that alternative she represented: it’s a jazz record made with a quartet of drums, acoustic bass, guitar, and trumpet, recorded with exactly one microphone in a Brooklyn church. It is also a good summary of her career, in its stripped down style — covering old songs of hers (including her first big hit, “I Try”), offering a new track, and creating interesting versions of songs by two heroes: Bob Marley and . . . Metallica.
Talking to Gray about Stripped you get the sense of why something like this makes sense for her but also the way in which she still yearns for the limelight.
The Story Up to Now
Macy Gray appeared on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, just as the new century appeared. Her debut album, On How Life Is was a slow burn mega-success, producing a No. 5 hit song on the pop charts in “I Try”, two Grammy nominations in 2000 and then three more in 2001, with Gray walking away with the Best Female Pop Vocal crown.
Looking back on that time today, Macy sounds like a hundred pop divas before. "My first album went so well, and I thought that’s how it would be forever. The first week my record came out, I sold 8,992 records. I jumped all over the place and had parties for two weeks. Then it started selling millions, and I was on the charts. It was all very . . . Wow! because I was not expecting that."
Before the parties, Gray was like many other musicians in Los Angeles, starting off in jazz and then trying other styles on a local scene. "A friend had a jazz band, and he needed a singer. It was fun. I grew to love it and crave it, and I started to put my whole heart into it. We’d play at clubs and eight people would show up. We had fun. You’d make stickers and use them to promote yourself all across the city. It helped that I was so naive about it. Of course, I wanted my dreams to come true. But I was just doing my thing."
Gray also played harder rock on the scene. "I had these four guys with long hair banging away on their instruments. That's where I learned to yell and scream when I sing. Music came at a time when I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I stuck with it because it made me happy."
Gray’s expectations may have been somewhat tempered by a relatively bumpy road to her first recording finding a label and distribution. But, with expectations raised, perhaps they were sure to fall.
“My second record didn’t do as well. I didn’t think that was a big deal, but my label and the press made a really big deal about it. I wasn’t expecting people to switch up on me based on my record sales. I was super-naive. I honestly didn’t know what it was all about. I was thinking it was art and we did this cool shit with samples. When we did 'I Try' I didn’t think 'I have a hit.' But then you feel this pressure to do a certain kind of thing and collaborate with people who are famous. But you really just want to make music."
Another four albums for Gray would trace an up-down career, but no high hit the peak of the very first one. Her various producers seemed to try just about every approach, including a live album, an album of rock covers, a song-by-song remake of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and a 2014 return to an all-original program, The Way.
Gray’s new recording is the greatest departure of all. Stripped is part of the “Binaural + Series” from Chesky Records, a label that normally records straight-ahead jazz musicians, folks musicians, and the like. Not pop stars. The series features recordings made with a single microphone, no post-produciton editing, and a remarkably spacious live sound.
The band is minimal, just guitar (Russell Malone), bass (Daryl Johns), drums (Ari Hoenig), and Wallace Roney’s Miles Davis-esque trumpet on a few tracks. "The musicians were chosen by the producers,” Gray explains. “They wanted to use musicians in New York because that’s where they record. They were really set on a small band and not having piano. I begged for piano. I usually have say over how I’m recorded. There was a lot of trust involved on my part."
The result is a collection of music that sounds significantly different than pop, of course, but also different than the basic “jazz album” of 2016. The sound creeps up on you, and Gray’s vocals are blended into the band, sometimes even receding to the back. It feels not merely loose but airy, open, and diffuse. A pop album described that way would be a failure. But this isn’t a pop album.
"It’s more of a blues album to me,” explains Gray. As it opens on Gray's “Annabelle”, Malone is out front with a lick that is more B.B. King than anything else. The tune itself isn’t a blues in structure, but Hoenig gives it a little shuffle feel, and Gray delivers a beautiful lead. When Malone solos, though, it’s on a 12-bar blues form, followed by a call and response between the band’s off-mic vocals and Gray.
The songs from previous Gray recordings are given rhythm makeovers. "The band had gotten together before I arrived in New York and they had worked out the arrangements.” The big hit, “I Try”, is remade with the groove that jazz fan’s will immediately recognize as being from Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana”. It gives the familiar tune a nice new hop and sway.
“She Ain’t Right For You” goes in for a reggae feeling. “First Time” retains its vocal punch, but the band makes it a jazz ballad: brushes against the snare, whole-note bass throbs, jazz guitar voicings. “Sweet Baby” rides atop a straight Bo Diddley modified clave, with Roney supplying a tart, muted solo. If you want to find some fault with Stripped, here it is: at times it seems as though the band decided to give these songs a small handful of the most obvious groove treatments, stuff that they could come up with easily and already knew by heart. Not that the playing on Stripped is less than excellent, but it feels as if Macy Gray dropped into a local jazz bar and mushed her songs into a handful of Real Book grooves.
Then there are the two covers of other folks' songs. “Nothing Else Matters” is the Metallica song, played as a jazz waltz with modern jazz chords, built around catchy five-note riff. It works fine, but it’s one of the songs here that really would have been more powerful with a bigger band: a hard-bop horn section, a piano, something to emphasize the rhythm. Roney comes in at the end to play a lovely, singing, open bell solo, and it may be the coolest moment here. Marley’s “Redemption Song” is played pretty much the way you’re used to hearing it — and for that reason it is a natural, unforced highlight
Gray is at her best on Stripped when she is most conversational. You feel that you are simply in the room with these musicians. Presumably this comes from Gray’s love of Billie Holiday. "A lot of singers were raised in the church and their main influence in gospel and they sing like that. I was totally open. I’d listen to Bob Marley and he would sing his lyrics really subtly. Same with Billie. It was more important for her to get her story out. Nina Simone said she started singing because she had to. I knew I could not be like Mariah Carey and hit all those notes, but I learned about phrasing. Frank Sinatra influenced me.
"Even when Biggie Smalls came out, he had this awesome phrasing. I got focused on singing on the beat. I’m still learning and pick up things from people. I can do a lot with my voice. But I don’t have a pure Whitney Houston voice like like I wish I had."
The last tune on Stripped is “Lucy”, which was improvised in the studio with the tape rolling. "We were looking for another song, and they just starting playing. I wrote the lyrics on the spot. We did it in just a couple of takes. It was comfortable for me. I was raised on playing live. That’s really how I learned to sing — everything was live.” The band has a syncopated groove set up, Roney starts with a solo, and then Gray comes in with a tale that is sexy and clear. “We don’t have to make it complicated”, she sings. And that might be as good and clear an expression of Stripped as any. Simple is pretty good, even for a pop star.
"I just really enjoy going into the studio and making a record. Of course, everybody wants a big hit. But I really respect music, and I like doing things that are different.
"Music has always been a fun thing for me. I got lucky that my fun turned into a lifestyle and a living. But I still feel like it is something that is in the air — music is up there and you can’t touch it. If you get to play music for a living you’re really lucky."